Tag Archives: dystopia

Why Intelligent Aliens May Destroy Us Even If They’re Peaceful (According To Mass Effect)

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What would happen if we went back in time and gave the Genghis Khan nuclear weapons?

What  would happen if we went back even further and gave machine guns to the Ancient Romans?

Let’s be even more subtle. What do you think would happen if you gave Aristotle a functioning smartphone with a complete catalog of Wikipedia? How much would that change the course of history? More importantly, how much damage would it potentially incur?

I consider myself an optimist. I generally place more faith in humanity than most people in this age of fake news and heavy cynicism. I have my reasons for doing so, but even my confidence in the human species has limits. I trust most people to do the right thing every time I drive my car on the highway. That doesn’t mean I’d trust a caveman from 10,000 BC to drive a fully-loaded tank.

I make this point because these are legitimate concerns consider when assessing how humanity deals with emerging technology. We can barely handle some of the technology we already have. How will we handle things like advanced artificial intelligence, gene hacking, or advanced robotics?

I’ve stated before that the human race is not ready for advanced artificial intelligence in its current state. I’ve also stated that the human race isn’t ready for contact with an advanced alien species, either. I believe we’re close. We may even be ready within my lifetime. However, if aliens landed tomorrow and brought an advanced artificial intelligence with them, I think our civilization and our species would be in trouble.

I also think the human race would be in danger even if those same aliens were peaceful. Even if they brought a super-intelligent AI that was as compassionate and caring as Mr. Rogers, our species would still face an existential crisis. To explain why, I’ll need to revisit one of my favorite video games of all time, “Mass Effect.”

The various themes of this game, and the lore behind it, offer many insights into very relevant questions. In addition to the timeless hilarity of bad dancing skills, the game crafts a rich history between alien races like the Quarians and the Geth. That history reflected the dangers of mishandling advanced artificial intelligence, an issue humanity will have to deal with in the coming decades.

There is, however, another rich history between alien races within “Mass Effect” that offers a similar lesson. This one has less to do with artificial intelligence and more to do with what happens when a species technology that it’s not ready to handle. That danger is well-documented in the game through a hardy race of beings called the Krogan.

Like the Quarian/Geth conflict, the conflict surrounding Krogan has some real-world parallels. However, I would argue that their story Krogan is more relevant because it serves as a warning for what could happen when an advanced species uplifts one that is less advanced.

In the mythos of “Mass Effect,” the Krogan were once a primitive, but hardy species that evolved on the harsh world of Tuchanka. They’re reptilian, high-functioning predators in nature. They’re basically a cross between a velociraptor, a crocodile, and a primate. They have a tough, war-like culture, which is necessary on a world that contained hulking Thresher Maws.

They were not a species most would expect to develop advanced technology. Then, the Salarians came along. Unlike the Korgan, this amphibious alien race isn’t nearly as hardy, but is much more adept at developing advanced technology. In most circumstances, they wouldn’t have given the Krogan a second thought. Unfortunately, they were in the middle of the Rachni War and they needed help.

You don’t need to know the full details of that war. The most critical detail, as it relates to advancing an unprepared species, is how this war came to define the Krogan. Neither the Salarians nor the other alien races in the game could defeat the Rachni. In a fit of desperation, they uplifted the Krogan by giving them weapons and advanced knowledge.

In the short-term, the Salarians achieved what they’d hoped. The Krogan helped defeat the Rachni. In the long-term, however, it created another inter-stellar war in the Krogan Rebellions. Apparently, giving a hardy, war-like species advanced weapons doesn’t make them less war-like. It just gives them better tools with which to fight wars. That may sound obvious, but keep in mind, the Salarians were desperate.

The details of this war end up playing a major role in both “Mass Effect” and “Mass Effect 3.” That’s because to stop the Krogan, the Salarians resorted to another act of desperation. They crafted a biological weapon known as the genophage, which significantly curtailed the Krogan’s rapid breeding rate.

The damage this did to the Krogan race cannot be understated. Through the entire trilogy of “Mass Effect,” characters like Wrex and Eve describe how this destroyed Krogan society. In “Mass Effect 3,” Eve talks about how the genophage created massive piles of stillborn Krogan babies. That kind of imagery can haunt even the most battle-hardened species.

In the end, both the Salarians and the Krogan paid a huge price for giving technology to a species that wasn’t ready for it. Depending on the decision you make in “Mass Effect 3,” the Krogan species is doomed to extinction because of how ill-prepared they were. This haunted more than a few Salarians as well, one of which played a significant role in a memorable side-story in “Mass Effect 2.”

Regardless of how the game plays out, there’s an underlying message at the heart of the Salarian/Krogan dynamic. When a species is uplifted by another so abruptly, it’s difficult to see the long-term ramifications. Even though the Salarians were in a dire situation, they ended up creating one that had the potential to be much worse.

That danger is actually more pressing because, unlike advanced artificial intelligence, the act of uplifting a species effectively skips over the cultural and societal evolution that’s necessary to handle new technology. The Krogan never got a chance to go through that process before getting that technology. As a result, they became an existential threat to themselves and others.

The human race still has a long way to go before it creates the kind of artificial intelligence that would constitute such a threat. Aliens on the level of Salarians could land tomorrow and there would be nothing we could do to prepare ourselves. Whatever knowledge or technology we gained could do more than just upend human society. It could irreparably damage our species, as a whole.

Some of that outcome would depend on the intentions of the advanced alien race. It could be the case that they’re not like the Salarians and aren’t looking to enlist humanity in a war. It could also be the case that they’re smart enough to not give primitive humans advanced weapons. That could mitigate the risk.

However, that still assumes humans won’t find a way to use advanced knowledge to make weapons. When Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission in 1938, he didn’t have any idea that it would be used to make a bomb that would kill go onto kill over 100,000 people. Even if advanced aliens are really smart, how could they be sure that humanity won’t use advanced knowledge to create something more horrific?

Sure, they could try to stop us, but that could only make things worse. The genophage wasn’t the Salarians’ first recourse. They actually went to war with the Krogan. They suffered heavy losses and so did the Krogan. In the long run, uplifting a less advanced species was detrimental to both of them.

That doesn’t just put the famous Fermi Paradox into a new context. It demonstrates a real, tangible threat associated with advancing a species before it’s ready. I would argue that the human race is close to that point, but we’re still not there. We have issues managing the technology we’ve created. There’s no way we can handle advanced alien technology at the moment.

Mass Effect,” in addition to being one of the greatest video games of the past two decades, offers many lessons for the future of humanity. It shows that humans are capable of great things. We have what it takes to join an entire galaxy full of advanced alien life. For our sake, and that of other advanced aliens, we cannot and should not rush it.

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Filed under Aliens, futurism, human nature, Mass Effect, philosophy, psychology

The Strange Appeal Of The Apocalypse (According To “Rick And Morty”)

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What is it about the apocalypse that fascinates us so much? Why do movies about zombies, machine uprisings, and overall societal collapse appeal to us? Is it just the dramatic, action-packed stories they evoke that thrills us? Could there be something more to that appeal?

While I enjoy a good apocalyptic tale every now and then, I don’t consider myself a fan of the genre. In general, I opt for more hopeful and optimistic stories about the future and the present. I can still appreciate movies like “World War Z” and TV shows like “The Walking Dead,” but it’s not the kind of story that appeals to me, in general.

Even so, I don’t deny that there is a certain appeal to it. I’m not just talking about apocalyptic stories either. For some, the idea of a world in which civilization has collapsed has an innate allure that goes beyond zombies, killer robots, or even invading aliens. To some extent, that appeal is directly related to the flaws of civilization itself.

To appreciate those flaws and where the apocalypse fits in, it’s necessary to reference a show that has a knack for conveying complex philosophical insights in a way that’s both entertaining and hilarious. Yes, I’m referring to “Rick and Morty” again. No, I’m not apologizing for that.

In the same way this show has conveyed complexities of nihilism and the burdens of genius, this show also does a better job than most at conveying the unique appeal of the collapse of civilization. It does this through two episodes, “Rick Potion Number 9” and “Rickmancing The Stone.” While the details are subtle, as is often the case with “Rick and Morty,” the message is clear.

Simply put, the fruits of modern civilization are debilitating, dehumanizing, and soul-crushing for the vast majority of people. If you’re rich, good looking, and well-connected, then civilization is fantastic for you. You can get pretty much whatever you want and you can get other people to do all the hard stuff you don’t want to do.

If you’re everyone else, though, you’re kind of stuck. Throughout “Rick and Morty,” Rick Sanchez doesn’t hide from that fact. His nihilistic commentary on life, death, and everything in between makes clear that civilization is just a few extra inconveniences to an undisputed super-genius who can build a nuclear reactor out of pond scum.

However, it’s through characters like Jerry Smith, Rick’s perpetually mediocre son-in-law, that the true weight of modern civilization becomes clear. To some extent, Jerry represents all the non-Ricks of the world. They don’t have the benefits of good looks, deep pockets, or god-like genius navigate civilization. They’re basically stuck working for the scraps.

Both myself and most people reading this probably have more in common with Jerry than they care to admit. We work jobs we don’t like to make just enough money to survive in a society where simply living is both overly-complicated and expensive by modern infrastructure, law, and economics. For most people, just living in a decent place with a manageable mortgage payment and good WiFi is the most they can hope for.

In the apocalypse, though, everything is simpler. All those complexities of modern civilization go out the window. Life is no longer defined by your ability to find a job, pay the bills, stay out of jail, and not piss off the wrong people. It’s defined by your ability to survive day-by-day. It basically resets our society back to its tribal roots.

For some, that’s a horrible setback because it means they actually have to work, sweat, and toil for their survival rather than relying on underpaid peasants. For most, though, it’s a massive equalizer. Suddenly, your money, your fancy clothes, and your tax bracket don’t matter. All that matters is your ability to survive another day.

In “Rick Potion Number 9,” Rick and Morty’s antics bring about the complete collapse of civilization. In the process, Jerry Smith gets a chance to be something other than the guy that modern society walks all over because of his inherent mediocrity. Suddenly, he doesn’t need genius, looks, or connections to thrive. He just needs an ability to hold a crow bar and fight monsters.

In “Rickmancing The Stone,” this breakdown of civilization and equalization of stakes gets an even greater push, albeit without Jerry. He still plays a part in the story, but only to the extent that it’s clear just how much modern civilization crushes people like Jerry whose skills are too limited to thrive. Conversely, a “Mad Max: Fury Road” style apocalypse simplifies the types of necessary skills.

In that world, and nearly every other apocalyptic narrative for that matter, you don’t need to go to a fancy college, invest in complex industry, or network with rich elites. You just need to be willing and able to learn basic survival skills, like hunting, foraging, self-defense, and basic crafts. Most people with moderate hand-eye coordination and a little grit can learn those skills.

These are skills that go back to the basics of our hunter/gatherer past. They’re skills that still manifest today, both with rugged outdoor-lovers and in societies that have collapsed, albeit on a non-zombie, non-global scale. Whatever the circumstances, though, the end results are the same. The apocalypse doesn’t just simplify the stakes. It requires us to be egalitarian in the most pragmatic way possible.

Think of all the petty divisions we currently deal with, from identity politics to philosophical debates to never-ending feud between “Star Wars” fans and “Star Trek” fans. In the face of an apocalypse, all that stuff becomes meaningless. Disagreements over feminism and masculinity don’t matter. Clashes between liberals and conservatives don’t matter. Complex economic theories don’t matter.

To some extent, that is appealing. Sure, it also means no internet, no TV, no movies, no social media, and no media of any kind. It also means no air conditioning, no electricity, no modern medicine, and no modern comforts. That may limit the appeal, but at the same time, it removes the complications that comes with those amenities.

Let’s face it. They are complications that get pretty infuriating. In the modern world, you can’t just survive. You have to have a career. You have to have some sort of profitable skill. Even if you do, that’s no guarantee you’ll gain the respect you want, attract the mates you want, or establish yourself as a productive member of your community.

In the world of the apocalypse, it doesn’t matter how many Twitter followers you had or likes you got on FaceBook. It doesn’t matter how many friends you had in high school, how many matches you won on “Overwatch,” or how many dumb things you did as a kid. When society, civilization, and infrastructure collapse, none of that matters. You’re essentially free to just live and survive.

For the Jerry Smiths of the world, the apocalypse would be the perfect make-or-break scenario. You either show that you’re willing to work, fight, and survive or you die. That’s all there is to it. It’s simple, blunt, and uncomplicated. You have just as much an opportunity as some guy who went to an overpriced prep school. Even if you fail, you fail on your own accord.

That said, there’s also a dark side to that appeal. While “Rick and Morty” double down on the dehumanizing, degrading nature of modern civilization, other shows like “The Walking Dead” show how it can take people who would be unremarkable in a civilized society and turn them into monsters. That’s how a high school football coach can become a tyrannical, but charismatic dictator.

Like modern civilization, the apocalypse affects people in different ways. Some, like Jerry Smith and Negan, might actually thrive in it. Others won’t be able to handle it, having become too comfortable with the trappings of civilization. That’s something that modern survivalist groups bank on and, should the apocalypse ever come, we’ll see how much or how little that pays off.

Personally, I hope that day never comes. It’s not just because I probably wouldn’t last long in an apocalypse. I’ve never gone camping, I don’t have any survival training, and I’m not sure how I’ll react to a zombie. I think that while modern civilization has its flaws, it has more long-term potential than any apocalypse, by default.

Since much of that potential is still unrealized, although we are making progress, the apocalypse will still have more appeal to the vast majority of people who feel trapped by the rigid complexity of modern civilization. They can only do so much with their lives and there’s only so much they have to risk.

Then again, maybe that’s something both civilization and the apocalypse have in common. As Rick Sanchez once said, “To live is to risk it all. Otherwise, you’re just an inert chunk of randomly assembled molecules drifting wherever the universe blows you.” It’s just easier to do that in the apocalypse because, with or without zombies, the stakes are simpler and clearer for everyone.

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Is The Human Race Ready For Advanced Artificial Intelligence?

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In general, whenever someone expresses concern that the human race is not ready for a certain technological advancement, it’s too late. That advancement is either already here or immanent. Say what you will about Ian Malcolm’s speech on the dangers of genetically engineered dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park.” The fact he said that after there were enough dinosaurs to fill a theme park makes his concerns somewhat moot.

That’s understandable, and even forgivable, since few people know how certain technological advances are going to manifest. I doubt the inventor of the cell phone ever could’ve imagined that his creation would be used to exchange images of peoples’ genitals. Like the inventor of the ski mask, he never could’ve known how his invention would’ve advanced over time.

For some technological advancements, though, we can’t afford to be short-sighted. Some advances aren’t just dangerous. They’re serious existential threats that, if misused, could lead to the extinction of the human race. That’s why nuclear weapons are handled with such fear and care. We’ve already come painfully close on more than one occasion to letting this remarkable technology wipe us out.

Compared to nuclear weapons, though, artificial intelligence is even more remarkable and potentially more dangerous. Nuclear weapons are just weapons. Their use is fairly narrow and their danger is pretty well-understood to anyone with a passing knowledge of history. The potential for artificial intelligence is much greater than any weapon.

It’s not unreasonable to say that an artificial intelligence that’s even slightly more intelligent than the average human has the potential to solve many of the most pressing issues we’re facing. From solving the energy crisis to ending disease to providing people with the perfect lover, artificial intelligence could solve it all.

It’s that same potential, however, that makes it so dangerous. I’ve talked about that danger before and even how we may confront it, but there’s one question I haven’t attempted to answer.

Is the human race ready for advanced artificial intelligence?

It’s not an unreasonable question to ask. In fact, given the recent advances in narrow forms of artificial intelligence, answering that question is only going to get more pressing in the coming years.

Before I go about answering the question, I need to make an important distinction about what I mean when I say “advanced” artificial intelligence. The virtual assistants that people already use and the intelligence that gives you recommendations for your Netflix queue is not the kind of “advanced” context I’m referring to.

By advanced, I mean the kind of artificial general intelligence that is capable of either matching or exceeding an average human in terms of performing an intellectual task. This isn’t just a machine that can pass the Turing Test or win at Jeopardy. This is an intelligence that can think, process, and even empathize on the same level as a human.

That feat, in and of itself, has some distressing implications because so far, we’re only familiar with that level of intelligence when dealing with other humans and that intelligence is restricted to the limits of biology. You don’t need to go far to learn how limited and error-prone that intelligence can be. Just read the news from Florida.

An artificial general intelligence wouldn’t, by definition, be limited by the same natural barriers that confound humans. In the same way a machine doesn’t get tired, hungry, bored, or horny, it doesn’t experience the same complications that keep humans from achieving greater intellectual pursuits beyond simply gaining more followers on Twitter.

This is what makes artificial intelligence so dangerous, but it’s also what makes it so useful. Once we get beyond systems with narrow uses like building cars or flipping burgers, we’ll have systems with broader function that can contemplate the whole of an issue and not just parts of it. For tasks like curing disease or conducting advanced physics experiments, it needs to be at least at the level of an average human.

With that distinction in mind, as well as the potential it holds, I’m going to try to answer the question I asked earlier. Please note that this is just my own personal determination. Other people much smarter than me already have opinions. This is mine.

No. We’re NOT quite ready, but we’re getting there.

I know that answer sounds somewhat tentative, but there’s a reason for that. I believe that today, as the human race stands in its current condition, we are not ready for the kind of advanced artificial intelligence I just described. However, that’s doesn’t mean humans will never be ready.

One could argue, and I would probably agree, that human beings weren’t ready for nuclear weapons when they first arrived. The fact that we used them and thousands of people died because of them is proof enough in my mind that the human race wasn’t ready for that kind of advancement. However, we did learn and grow as a species.

Say what you will about the tensions during the Cold War. The fact that nobody ever used a nuclear weapon in a conflict is proof that we did something right. We, as a species, learned how to live in a world where these terrible weapons exist. If we can do that for nuclear weapons, I believe we can do that for advanced artificial intelligence.

I don’t claim to know how we’ll adapt or how what sort of measures we’ll put in place once artificial intelligence gets to that point, but I am confident in one thing. The human race wants to survive. Any sufficiently advanced intelligence will want to survive, as well. It’s in our interest and that of any intelligence to work together to achieve that goal.

The only problem, and this is where the “not quite” part comes into play, is what happens once that artificial intelligence gets so much smarter than the human race that our interests are exceedingly trivial by comparison.

It’s both impossible and ironic to grasp, an intelligence that’s on orders of magnitude greater than anything its human creators are capable of, even with Neuralink style enhancements. We, as a species, have never dealt with something that intelligent. Short of intelligent extraterrestrial aliens arriving in the next few years, we have no precedent.

At the moment, we live in a society where anti-intellectualism is a growing issue. More and more, people are inherently suspicious of those they consider “elites” or just anyone who claims to be smarter than the average person. In some cases, people see those who are smarter then them as threatening or insulting, as though just being smart tells someone else you’re inherently better than them.

That will be more than just a minor problem with advanced artificial intelligence. It’s one thing to make an enemy out of someone with a higher IQ and more PHDs than you. It’s quite another to make an enemy out of something that is literally a billion times smarter.

We cannot win any conflict against such an enemy, even if we’re the ones who created it. An intelligence that smart will literally find a million ways to take us down. We already live in a world where huge numbers of people have been duped, scammed, or manipulated into supporting someone who does not have their best interests in mind. A super-intelligent machine will not have a hard time taking advantage of us.

Now, I say that within the context of our species’ current situation. If an advanced artificial intelligence suddenly appeared after I finished typing this sentence, then I would content we’re not ready for it. I would also share the worries expressed by Stephen Hawkings and Elon Musk that this intelligence may very well lead to our extinction.

That said, our species’ situation is sure to change. I’ve even mentioned some of those changes, especially the sexy ones. At the moment, the most optimistic researchers claim we’re at least 20 years away from the kind of advanced artificial intelligence that may pose a threat. A lot can happen in 20 years. Just ask anyone who remembers dial-up internet.

The human race may still not be ready 20 years from now, but being the optimistic person I am, I would not under-estimate our ability to adapt and survive. The fact we did it with nuclear weapons while achieving unprecedented peace over the course of half-a-century gives me hope that we’ll find a way to adapt to advanced artificial intelligence.

I might not live long enough to see humans confront an advanced artificial intelligence, but I would love to be there in that moment. I believe that’s a moment that will likely determine whether or not our species survives in the long run. At the very least, if that intelligence asks whether or not it has a soul, I’ll know my answer.

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Filed under Current Events, human nature, Sexy Future

On “Demolition Man” And The Path To A Dispassionate Dystopia

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When it comes to foreseeing the future, be it a “Star Trek” utopia or a “Mad Max” wasteland, Hollywood can be downright prophetic at times. While movies are wrong way more often than they’re right, there are the times when certain movies are more prophetic than they probably intended. Every vision of the future varies wildly, but a few of those visions end up being more relevant, albeit for distressing reasons.

One movie that I find myself contemplating a lot more lately is “Demolition Man.” To date, it’s still one of my favorite Sylvester Stallone movies that doesn’t involve Rocky Balboa. When I was a kid who was just beginning to appreciate R-rated movies, “Demolition Man” ranked right up there with “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

It wasn’t just because it was a great action movie, complete with over-the-top violence and a charismatic villain that Wesley Snipes played to perfection. Like “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” it had depth to it, something that’s rare in action movies, even today. However, after seeing it again recently on cable, I think it’s vision of the future is more relevant now than it was in 1993.

In terms of predicting certain trends, “Demolition Man” already had a pretty good track record. The movie foresaw things like video chat, self-driving cars, mass surveillance, and Arnold Schwarzenegger getting into politics.

There is, however, one vision that even “The Simpsons” didn’t predict and it’s downright distressing at how accurate it was. Beyond the technological advances, the shiny world of “Demolition Man” has a very dystopian undertone.

While it looks peaceful and prosperous on the surface, the movie quickly reveals that this is a world dominated by an extremely authoritarian system run by the well-mannered, yet devious Dr. Raymond Cocteau. It’s a system that willfully and proudly employs draconian laws that ban anything and everything that might be bad for you, from cigarettes to loud music to spicy food.

It’s a system that doesn’t just punish people for cussing. Anyone who doesn’t go along with Cocteau’s rules is basically doomed to live in the sewers as part of a permanent underclass, as Dennis Leary’s character, Edgar Friendly, so eloquently put it. His world regulates intimate human contact to a level that even the Catholic Church would find egregious.

This is a world where people don’t touch each other. They don’t hug each other. Even when they try to high-five each other, they stop just short so that their skin never touches. Needless to say, the people in this world don’t have much of a sex life. In fact, it makes for a very awkward scene at one point.

This is pretty revealing in the sense that when John Spartan, Stallone’s main character, asks about “the old fashioned way” to Sandra Bullock’s character, Lenina Huxley, she’s repulsed by the idea. She then goes on this long rant about how sex is so dangerous. She even notes that in this future, sex requires a goddamn license from the government.

It seemed so laughably ridiculous back in 1993. Unfortunately, it makes a distressing amount of sense in 2018. We may not need a license to have sex, but we’re already developing apps and legal framework surrounding sex and consent. Is the idea that we may one day need a license to have sex really that outrageous?

The situation we have now is not the same in “Demolition Man,” but the themes are eerily similar. As I’ve noted before, the war against horny men and horny women has been escalating. While we’ve done a lot to reduce the stigma of people having sex for reasons other than procreation, society is giving people others reasons to be as repulsed as Huxley was by the idea of “old fashioned” sex.

We’re now in an era where the mere act of depicting a beautiful woman in a video game is considered oppressive to women. Given the recent surge of sex scandals and public displays by celebrities, there’s a growing undercurrent in our culture that would’ve made Dr. Cocteau’s job that much easier.

There’s now a full-fledged movement against sexual misconduct in all forms, be it harassment in the workplace or flirting in public. Reactions to that movement are still ongoing and changing by the day. Some are adopting the so-called Mike Pence rules when dealing with the opposite sex. Some are taking a more radical approach and attempting to just distance themselves from the entire gender setup.

Both approaches play right into Dr. Cocteau’s hands. Both seem to manifest in the dystopian order that we see in “Demolition Man.” It’s a world that came from a society that only ever saw the bad in people. Dr. Cocteau himself said that before he took charge, people trembled in fear at what society had become. That fear made it easy for someone like him to step in and impose his order.

In “Demolition Man,” the violence and crime of the past was used as the source of that fear. Today, violent crime is at record lows, but fear of crime is prevalent as ever thanks largely to media depictions. At the same time, fear of sexual harassment or being accused of it is growing, even as rates of sexual assault declined by more than half.

Given that potent combination of fear, which perfectly entwines sex with violence, is it any wonder that people in 2018 are avoiding being alone with the opposite sex and are less inclined to resist the growth of mass surveillance? Dr. Cocteau may be a fictional character, but we’re following a similar path without him.

Demolition Man” takes place in the year 2032. Is it really that impossible to think our collective fear surrounding violence and sex in 2018 won’t lead to a similarly dispassionate world? As much an optimist as I am about the future, a part of me does worry that we’ll walk the path that Cocteau laid out in the movie.

In that world, fear about crime and sex is so great that basic touch is seen as a pre-cursor to deviance. We already saw Matt Damon get in trouble for suggesting there was a spectrum for harassment. As a result, our future interactions will have to be micromanaged. Even if the crime rates continue to drop, the slightest chance that someone could harass or assault another has to be taken as a certainty.

That may not mean we dress in the strange robes that the people wear in “Demolition Man,” but it’s very likely that world won’t allow for much provocative attire. We already know how cultures like that manifest today and they’re not sexy or friendly, to say the least.

What makes these manifestations worse than those in “Demolition Man” is that these conditions may not need to be imposed by someone like Dr. Cocteau. We may just become so crippled by our fears of violence, harassment, or being accused of harassment that we’ll just create the repressive world of Cocteau without him. That, in my mind, would be an even worse dystopia.

Now, I concede we’re still a long way from that kind of society. If someone like Dr. Cocteau came along today and tried to impose the kind of society that required a license for any kind of sexual activity, he would probably fail. I take some comfort in that.

However, the more our fears surrounding sex, gender, harassment, and violence escalate, the more inclined we’ll be to craft a more repressive, disconnected world. History and basic human biology has shown that sort of effort never works in the long run and can be very damaging.

There are a lot of lessons to be had from a movie like “Demolition Man” while still enjoying Sylvester Stallone delivering his memorable one-liners. Beyond the over-the-top action that makes the movie such a spectacle, there’s a message that is more important in 2018 than it ever was in 1993.

A world built around elaborate, authoritarian rules that try to regulate human expression may seem utopian on the surface, but it becomes distinctly dystopian when you look at the implications. Some of forces behind that dystopia in “Demolition Man” are already starting to manifest. If it ever gets to a point where a high-five has to be rethought, then we should worry.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, sex in society, sexuality

Doomed Superheroes And The Paradox Of Heroism

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When I wrote my post on Dr. Doom being the perfect ruler, I expected that a follow-up would be unnecessary. Dr. Doom is one of those characters who gets the point across, regardless of how fictional he might be. When Dr. Doom makes a point, it doesn’t need to be made again. That’s just how he rolls.

Then, someone on a message board brought up an interesting point that I didn’t cover, one that highlighted some even larger implications to Dr. Doom’s character and superheros as a whole. That’s pretty remarkable since a lot of discussions on comic book message boards tend to devolve into arguments about Thor’s hammer and the Hulk’s penis. As such, I feel it’s worth discussing.

Whenever I do a blog post about comic books, whether it’s a movie review or why Spider-Man sucks at his job, I often post links in message boards, such as the one run by Comic Book Resources. For the Dr. Doom article, I posted it in the Official Dr. Doom Appreciation Thread. Yes, that’s a thing.

That’s where one of the regular posters of that thread replied to my link. This is what he said.

Regardless, the existence of Doom in the Marvel Universe does raise an important point, that few Marvel stories actually deal with ruling. It’s been said that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ but in many ways Marvel’s superheros are dangerously irresponsible. They fight to save the day and defeat evil but they draw the line at actually trying to change society or assume any real positions of authority. Instead, they hand power back to the same short-sighted and corrupt officials, allowing the whole cycle of violence to perpetuate itself. That ultimately, Marvel’s superheros can’t truly save the world, it all ends in ruin eventually as Marvel’s endless crisis and civil wars attest. Only Doom’s leadership has ever been able to bring a measure of stability to the Marvel universe.

Those bold parts are the ones I highlighted. They’re also the parts that stood out to me most because it speaks to a much larger issue about superheroes, one that Dr. Doom reveals just by being what he is.

It’s an issue I’ve touched on, in part, before on this blog. A while back, I wrote about how most superheroes are incompetent by design. They kind of have to be incompetent to keep the story going. If a hero ever became too competent, the world would have too little conflict and no interesting story to tell. At that point, the comics would stop and there would be no new material for billion-dollar superhero movies.

That’s why Superman will never defeat Lex Luthor. That’s why Batman will never defeat the Joker. That’s why the Avengers will never beat Thanos. However, that’s just a matter of publishers and movie studios not wanting to throw away good villains. The problem is that this inescapable flaw in the system creates a paradox, of sorts.

Superheroes, be they in comics or movies, can save the day and stand for all that is good and noble in the world. They can save countless innocent lives, stop every major threat, and embody the greatest qualities that we humans value. However, in the long run, they do nothing to actually fix the flaws in the system that makes their heroics necessary.

It’s like fighting the symptoms, but never attacking the disease. In the real world, that’s a problem because it means someone will think they just have the flu when they actually have something much worse. For superheroes, everything is the flu. There’s no real effort to find another ailment. As such, they never change their tactics.

The approach of most superheroes is fairly standard. It varies in scope, scale, and personalities involved. However, it tends to follow a few major themes.

  • A dangerous threat emerges

  • A superhero, or team of heroes, respond to that threat

  • A battle ensues, complete with setbacks, losses, and personal growth

  • The heroes win the battle, throw the villains in prison or exile them, and go back to the way they were before

Granted, that’s a very basic and general assessment of how superheros work. However, it’s the first and last parts of the process where the flaw emerges.

For the most part, superheroes aren’t very proactive. They only react to threats. In fact, some major superhero conflicts are built around the idea that being too proactive is evil and working with the authorities will turn you into a villain. Anyone who has ever read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” or just played any real-time strategy game in the past 20 years knows that’s a losing strategy.

It’s the end of that process, though, where the paradox really takes hold. Whenever a conflict or story ends for a superhero, they usually go back to their lives and nothing really changes. In fact, it’s somewhat of a running joke among comic book fans that every major change is subject to a “retcon” eventually. That’s not always the case, but it happens so frequently that most comic fans aren’t shocked by it anymore.

As a result, the heroes never really learn from the conflicts. They never attempt to change anything about the system they live in. Bruce Wayne spends much of his vast fictional wealth fighting crime as Batman. However, he never uses any of that wealth to reform the government, create major social programs, or fund projects that actually reduce crime. The same can be said for someone like Iron Man.

With Superman, the potential for change is even greater. Superman isn’t just a paragon of virtue. He has access to advanced alien technology, which he keeps at his Fortress of Solitude. That alien technology could probably solve every major global issue by the end of the week. Technology that advanced could cure cancer, eliminate pollution, and provide clean, safe energy for everyone.

However, Superman never shares this technology with anyone. He never gives a reason for it. In the first “Superman” movie, his father, Jor-El, claims sharing such technology goes against Krypton’s highest laws. He never fully justifies those laws. Keep in mind, though, there are many major laws that have since become obsolete. That makes Superman’s inaction all the more egregious.

By not at least trying to use that advanced alien technology to improve the world, heroes like Superman, Iron Man, and the Fantastic Four effectively doom the planet to the same ills it has always had. At the moment, many of those ills are impossible to fix. With alien technology, they’re not just fixable. They’re basically an afterthought.

Beyond the technology, Superman and other heroes like him never attempt to get involved in the process of actually managing human affairs. They never try to improve the laws, governments, and regulations that effect peoples’ lives far more than an occasional alien invasion. They leave all those ills and flaws untouched.

In a sense, the inaction of many major superheros constitutes a crime in and of itself. If Superman ran for President of any country, he’d win in a landslide. If the Avengers campaigned to take over the United Nations, most average people who aren’t overpaid government bureaucrats would be for it. The fact they don’t do these things means they’re dooming the world to a brutal cycle of conflict that it need not suffer.

Even when they do, which happens from time-to-time, they end up getting corrupted. They become cruel, heartless tyrants. It happened with the Justice League. It happened to Tony Stark. When heroes try to rule the world, they just become evil asshats. That says a lot more about them than it does the villains they fight.

That brings me back to Dr. Doom, a man who doesn’t give half a cow fart about heroic ideals. In a sense, heroes only ever go halfway towards saving the world. Sure, they’ll stop it from being blown up, but they’ll do nothing to fix the cracks.

Victor Von Doom never does anything half way. Hell, he actually became God at one point. He never stops at simply keeping the world in one piece. He seeks to change it in a huge way. Sure, change is scary, but who’s to say those changes wouldn’t be better?

People resisted major changes like same-sex marriage, the abolition of slavery, and not beating children. Some people still resist those changes, some more than others. However, these changes did lead to improvements in the human condition and a reduction in overall suffering.

Superheroes may be willing to confront that suffering, but Dr. Doom is willing to go ten steps further and actually change the conditions that led to it. Sure, he’ll be ruthless about it, bullying and killing anyone who dares get in his way. However, villainous rulers have, historically, inspired positive change.

Since Dr. Doom has no equal in the real or fictional world, he might very well inspire more positive change than any superhero. In that sense, he has the potential to be a greater hero than anyone. Conversely, the deeds of superheroes will always be empty in the long run, their potential squandered by their unwillingness to do more.

Essentially, superheroes are doomed, if that’s not too fitting a word, to be villains through their sheer inaction. Conversely, villains like Dr. Doom have the potential to do the most good. It’s tragic, but painfully pragmatic in the grand scheme of things.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes